LINCOLN SQUARE — Shara Miller was taking the bus Tuesday when she saw a banner attached to the fence of a public parking lot in Lincoln Square. It read, “ALD. MARTIN NO CHA HERE.”
Nearby, nonprofit developer Community Builders has been trying to build an affordable housing complex at 4715 N. Western Ave. for more than a year. A previous proposal couldn’t get necessary financing and was beset by what developers and Ald. Matt Martin (47th) said were misleading claims about how the housing would impact parking and hurt local businesses.
So, the developer reworked the proposal. Now, the planned development would only reduce parking in the area by two spaces — but critics are still not satisfied. Some residents have started a petition claiming the parking helps small businesses, while others say more density would be a boon to shops and restaurants still reeling from a terrible year.
It’s not clear who is responsible for the “No CHA” banner, but Miller called it a “ridiculous” escalation “by someone who just can’t let that little parking lot go.” She took a photo of it and shared it with Chicago Public Square and Block Club.
The banner was gone by the end of the week.
“I’m Black and I live in the neighborhood. My brain immediately went to, ‘OK, I’ve seen that before. That’s my breaking point. That is very unwelcoming,’” Miller said. “That’s weird, racist codeword stuff. I know what’s happening. It’s a dog whistle. I wasn’t having it.”
Lincoln Square businesses that have weathered the coronavirus pandemic have done so thanks to local shoppers, said Timeless Toys owner Scott Friedland. His shop at 4749 N. Lincoln Ave. is on the commercial strip between the large arches announcing Lincoln Square. He said a development on the lot would bring more customers to the area — something all small business owners should celebrate.
“The people who buy from us all the time do so because we’re the most convenient option for them to shop. The people who support us week after week after week aren’t just coming for a special trip every few months or for the holidays,” Friedland said. “If the message is ‘shop local,’ well if you don’t have enough people who live locally, how are they going to shop local?”
This is Community Builders’ second attempt at building on the property, tucked next to a US Bank and behind Lincoln Avenue stores like Merz Apothecary.
The company’s first proposal didn’t get off the ground after it lost out on $1.5 million in city tax credits in April 2020. The developer plans to apply for the credits again this summer with the hope of submitting a formal proposal to Martin this winter.
The new designs incorporate feedback from three community meetings in the past year. The revised proposal is a five-story building with 5,000 square feet of ground-floor retail, 51 affordable apartments, 41 public parking spaces and nine parking spaces for apartment residents.
The current parking lot has 47 spaces, 43 of which are used for metered parking. The other four are used by ZipCar and Enterprise. The project is in the preliminary stages, but as it stands, it would only eliminate two metered parking spaces.
“We definitely spent a lot of time [on parking], and rightfully so. But this is the most amount of time we’ve ever spent on a development concept around parking,” Will Woodley, Community Builders’ director of development, said in May. “But it makes sense for this site and development to focus on that.”
Martin said in a statement he understood the strong opinions neighbors have about potential developments in the ward, but the majority of feedback his office has received has been respectful and constructive.
“Everyone is welcome in the 47th Ward, regardless of race, income or background. I encourage neighbors to continue to listen and understand different perspectives without casting personal judgments,” he said.
A petition circulating through the neighborhood claims the lot is at risk of being eliminated, hurting businesses and community organizations that host events in the area.
It had nearly 3,500 signatures as of Monday. A website promoting the petition cites a now-outdated 1998 master plan for the neighborhood as reason to stop the development and keep the parking lot unchanged.
The authors of the 23-year-old plan estimated the area was short about 1,500 parking spaces. But they also said that figure “has not been adjusted for the area’s transit use, which may lower the overall need” for parking.
A new Lincoln Square master plan — which prioritizes affordable housing and public transit over vehicles and parking — was adopted in 2019 after a nearly 12-month planning process that included neighbors, business owners and city stakeholders.
The neighborhood blueprint also said Lincoln Square is losing residents, fueled primarily by the trend of converting two-flat residential properties into single-family homes.
“Density is key for a thriving business district,” said Rudy Flores, the Lincoln Square Ravenswood Chamber’s executive director. “And right now it’s important for us to try and bring people into the community because we’ve lost population.”
Friedland, of Timeless Toys, also worries about the corridor’s long-term health if Lincoln Square’s population loss isn’t reversed.
“The proposal only has two parking spaces being lost. The reality is, when you look at the rest of the city, parking in Lincoln Square is really not an issue,” Friedland said. “We have so much parking in Lincoln Square, and most of the neighborhood streets even have free parking. Honestly, for me as a local business owner, parking is a very low priority.”
Friedland said he and his employees are people who could benefit from the type of housing being proposed.
“This brings up the whole thing about how people are nervous about this being affordable housing. Because people think it has a bad rap. But I technically qualify for the affordable housing that would be going in there, and so does most of my staff,” Friedland said. “People keep on being priced out, but we need a mix of culture and income levels to make this community even better than it already is.”
Davis Theater co-owner Ben Munro echoed the need for increasing the neighborhood’s population.
“The owners of the Davis Theater support concepts that increase population density in our community so long as they align with our neighborhood’s long-term goals. We feel it’s important to offer affordable housing,” Munro said in a statement.
Miller said the banner was reminiscent of years-long, racially charged backlash to an affordable housing development at 5150 N. Northwest Highway. in Jefferson Park. After more than four years of debate — which also included worries about density and increased traffic — construction on that project is expected to finally be completed by the end of the summer.
In that instance, the long list of people who applied for the affordable housing options in Full Circle’s Jefferson Park building includes some people who opposed affordable units in the area, the developer said.
“It’s all very exhausting,” Miller said. “If the proposal was for no parking at all at that lot, then I would understand their concerns. But that’s not what’s happening. I’m hoping the age of NIMBYs will soon be over.”
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